T-shaped skills in every area of your life

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While the concept of T-shaped skills is not so new, it is now more important than ever. The world is becoming more and more complex and T-shaped skills are a razor that can cut through all the complexity.

Your T-shaped skillset must constantly become broader (- general knowledge) and narrower (| specialized knowledge) as the world becomes more complex, nevertheless having T-shapes skills is one of the biggest competitive advantage you can have in the creative society when contributing value for the markets or when achieving your goals.

Let’s see why. Well, to really understand the whole story, we have to go from dashes (-) and I’s to T’s, PI’s and even hashtags (#).

Dash-shaped skills and low value added

Dash (-) shaped skills simply means having some general knowledge about everything. You are a generalist, no real specialist at anything. This kind of people are usually called jacks-of-all-trades and considered as masters of none. If you are a generalist, your T doesn’t have any support to lean on and with that, several problems occur.

The first problem is that it’s hard to gain respect from people, especially other specialists, if you don’t excel at something. The second problem is that the world is becoming so complex and saturated with information that as a result, being a generalist means pretty much nothing.

Your general knowledge must be in a specific context to have any power at all. That context usually comes from having a connected specialized skill.

Having dash-shaped skills usually also means providing low value added. With all the knowledge accessible to you with one click, it’s easy to become a generalist at anything. If you are a generalist, the value added you provide is only a little bit higher than providing manual work that anyone can do.

Let’s look at some facts and practical examples:

  • People will respect you when you are really good at something. Furthermore, the halo effect will happen and they will think that you are even better in other areas of life. It’s hard to achieve that if you don’t have your own forte, but just general knowledge about something.
  • If you want to provide value to a team, you do have to be a generalist capable of working efficiently in a team, but people will recognize your value if you contribute a specific kind of skill.

If you are an extremely good copywriter and additionally have general knowledge about internet marketing, then the combination of both is really powerful. But if you only have some general knowledge about the internet, then marketing is not nearly as valuable. General knowledge is context and foundation.

Usually when you go to a generalist doctor, you can know more about a specific problem you have than he does, just by searching for information and cases on the internet.

Twenty years ago, there may have been room in this world for generalists, from doctors, lawyers to managers, marketers and others. But the value of generalists was made obsolete by the internet, search engines and the curiosity of people who don’t want to be only specialists but want to know and master more from their industry.

And there’s enough people like that. High competition, low value added.

I-shaped skills

The basic fact is that if you want to get paid well for your work, you have to be good at something that is high in demand, but has a rare supply. In other words: you need I-shaped skills: you need to be good at something that not many people on the market are good at.

The good news is that there are more and more disciplines you can be good at. While internet marketing was a specialization 10 years ago, now you can be a specialist for paid advertising, search engine optimization, social media marketing and so on. It’s not much different in other industries.

The bad news is that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a specialist. We annually produce more information and knowledge than we have in the whole history of humankind. Thus becoming a specialist means very hard work and constant improvement.

Another big problem is also that faculties are producing more generalists than specialists, so becoming a specialist is a task you have to undertake on your own.

But there is an even more important secret to having I-shaped skills. Creative capitalism or the knowledge economy respects talented people more than anything else. Not only talented people, but those talented people who work hard to develop and capitalize their talent.

The higher the demand, the rarer a skill and the better you master the skill, the more value you provide to the market. Markets are prepared to reward you completely disproportionately to the average for that kind of skill, to your advantage, of course.

Four groups of I-shaped skills

There are four groups of I-shaped skills that are highly respected on the market in general.

The first group are business skills, like management, marketing, finance, sales, e-commerce etc. But you really have to be extremely good at it. Some disciplines, like marketing, are so broad that you need to find your niche inside the industry.

The second group are engineering skills, from IT to biotech and all other promising industries. Scientists are extremely valuable in the knowledge economy. This group also includes specialists like doctors, lawyers, investors, etc. who are really good at their jobs and specialize for things high in demand.

The third group are creative people – people who know how to be different and better, people who have awesome ideas and know how to bring them to life; entrepreneurs for example.

The fourth group is show business and all successful musicians, sportsmen, artists, actors, entertainers and so on can be included in this group.

In all four groups, you have the top 1 – 4 % who are paid extremely well (a.k.a. rich people), 16 – 20% of people who are above average (a.k.a. upper middle class) and others who earn average respect and salaries from other people and markets.

There is no doubt that you want to become extremely good at something. At something that is rare, hard to learn; at something that is currently high in demand and will be high in demand in the future. But there is even more value added that you can put on your I-shaped skills. You want to see the forest, not only the trees.

T shaped internet marketer

Example of T-shaped internet marketer.

T-shaped skills with E power

People who are extremely good at something and become aware of how valuable they are usually become hard to work with. You know, everyone from assholes and divas to people who want to have special benefits all the time.

Working with people like that is hard and if you aren’t a true star or Jennifer Lopez, your value added can start fading, since teams are becoming more important than individuals.

When it comes to complex problems in the business world that are more difficult to solve, interdisciplinary teams provide the most value. And there is no I in TEAM. Thus you need to develop a broad set of skills that are a dash over your I.

A combination of those two, being a specialist for one thing and a generalist for a few others, especially people skills, gives a really powerful combination.

For example, the idea of agile teams in software development is to be cross-functional and self-organizing, meaning all members need to have some specific competences, but all members also need general competences that allow them to deliver everything by themselves and work together efficiently. In agile teams, there is no room for general project managers.

I is something you are talented at. I is something you are passionate about. I is something you love to focus on and work hard for. I is something for which you have good ideas easily. I is something at which you want to constantly improve and push the limits. I is something at which you constantly persist and keep creating new products to serve people.

A dash over the I is your curiosity. A dash over the I is context knowledge that empowers your I. A dash over the I is leverage, since you need to work with other people, understand paradigms, the rules of life and industry, and future trends. A dash over the I is your foundation that allows you to dive as deep as possible.

General skills that are good to have no matter what you are doing as a specialist:

  • A broad knowledge about something (law, economy, software development, linguistics…)
  • A broader context for your specialized skill set (SEO expert – e.g. internet marketing)
  • A basic knowledge of how humans and the society work (biology, psychology, sociology…)
  • Understanding the industry you work in, its trends and paradigms
  • Basic knowledge of how the business world works

Soft skills you have to be good at, unless you are an ultra-geek or a genius:

  • Teamwork
  • Communication skills and networking, with good enough English skills
  • Time management
  • Information technology
  • Tolerance and open-mindedness

Soft skills that provide additional value (you can even become a specialist):

  • Leadership and organization
  • Negotiations
  • Presentations and giving lectures
  • Creativity and innovation
  • The basics of marketing and sales

There is another competence I have to emphasize, no matter how good of an I, T or dash you are. That is execution (E). Ideas have almost zero value. We all have ideas. There are too many ideas everywhere. Execution is much more important than ideas.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve read a hundred books about swimming if you haven’t done a single stroke in the water. It doesn’t matter that you have a very rare knowledge and a thousand ideas if at the same time you’re a lazy procrastinator, unable to deliver. I and T without E are almost useless.

Different areas of life and T-shaped skills powered by E

Until now, we’ve more or less talked only about business and skill combinations that can get you paid the most on the market. But you can use the same concept in all other areas of life.

Having strong foundations and diving deep into something that interests you is a winning combination in all areas of life. With strong discipline and execution, of course. Let’s look at a few examples.

Practical examples

If you want to be healthy, doing only one sport you love isn’t enough. You also need to know the basics of a good diet, you need to work on your core muscles, flexibility, condition etc. All that is a strong foundation that enables you to be really good at a specific sport. The T-shaped skills approach.

If you want to have good relationships, you need to find people with common interests and the same values. But you also need to be good at communication, know how to manage difficult situations, have ideas for what to do together and so on. Good people skills are a foundation for good relationships. But in order for relationships to work in the long term, you also need more profound connections, based on common values and interests.

It’s the same with money. You need to have a broad knowledge of how financial markets work, about different investing options etc. But if you really want to make a good return, you have to become extremely good at one type of investments. You have to be better than 90 % of other investors in the same asset class.

We can even apply the same concept to spirituality. Before you believe in something 100 %, be it a religion or any other spiritual idea, you want to understand why having such a belief is important. You want to understand different religions, spiritual concepts etc. It’s the foundation for finding something that will really empower you to the full. It’s the foundation that will give your life a greater meaning.

Same goes for all other areas of life. You want to do things that you know are fun for you and you are good at, but that shouldn’t stop you from constantly trying new and new things. As mentioned your T-shaped skillset must constantly become broader (- general knowledge) and narrower (| specialized knowledge) in all areas of life.

PI-shaped skillset can take you even a step further

Becoming a really well-shaped and strong T in life is basically a lifelong process. It’s not easy and it demands constant improvements, hard work and finding a balance between acquiring general and specific knowledge. You have to keep expanding and narrowing your T-shaped skills.

But more and more people are aware of the T-shaped skills advantage, so there is another level where you can take your skills even a step further and provide much more value added. If you are a true achievement-oriented freak.

The concept is the so-called PI-shaped skillset. The idea is that you are a generalist on one side, but a specialist at two or even more things on the other.

A magical power comes from transferring ideas and knowledge from one specialist area to the other and vice versa or from combining two fields into one product. For example, you are fitness specialist and a programmer, and so you make a fitness app.

As mentioned before, becoming extremely good at more than one thing in life is pretty damn hard. Therefore people who are capable of PI shaped skills are usually people who have developed certain competences at a young age.

For example, playing a specific sport or a musical instrument, practicing a certain type of art or hobby, the latter combined with a completely different field of study, can give magical results and PI-shaped skills by default.

It’s good to be aware of the competences you’ve developed over your lifetime and whether there are any good ways to combine them.

All others of us, who hadn’t developed certain specialized skills in our youth, have to make a decision whether being a T is good enough or we want to sacrifice more time and other areas of life to become PIs.

It’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Nevertheless, make sure and work hard to be more than only a dash or an I. You know you have a greater potential and it’s your duty to work hard to bring that potential to life.


To sum things up together with pointing out action items:

  • Find something that you’re passionate about and is/will be high in demand, focus yourself, dive deep and constantly improve. Sooner, you start to go deeper, be better. Don’t feel bad that you won’t be able to master many things, the world has just become too complex.
  • When you are an expert, never lose your general curiosity. Constantly read about your industry and other subjects. Try new things. Understand how the business world and financial markets work. Understand how we humans work. Understand trends and paradigms. Combine different areas. Have fun.
  • Take your game to a whole new level by systematically combining your different specialties. Win.

Reaching the ultimate level – Hastag

You want even more than pi? Well, there is one more level, the ultimate competence level. Become a hashtag #-skilled person.

  • (Dash one) A generalist in a few industries.
  • (Dash two) Develop soft skills.
  • (I one) Be a specialist at one thing.
  • (I two). Be a specialist at a completely different thing.
  • Combine all four. Win big.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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